Benjamin Soskis is a research associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., and a co-editor of HistPhil, a website devoted to the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. His work explores the many ways in which the study of the history of philanthropy can benefit the current and future practice of philanthropy.
Before joining the Urban Institute, Soskis was a fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He has been an adjunct professor at The George Washington University and the University of California’s Washington Center. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University.
Soskis’ doctoral dissertation formed the basis of a 2014 paper he prepared for the Bradley Center for Philanthropy & Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., “Both More and No More: The Historical Split between Charity and Philanthropy,” which he presented and discussed at this event.
He is a co-author, with John Stauffer, of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On; co-author, with Stanley N. Katz, of the Hewlett Foundation’s Looking Back at 50 Years of U.S. Philanthropy; and author of “A History of Associational Life and the Nonprofit Sector in the United States,” in the third edition of The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook, forthcoming later this year.
Soskis is a frequent contributor to The Chronicle of Philanthropy and his writing has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Boston Review, The Guardian, The New Republic, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and The Washington Post.
Like the pleasantly welcoming Soskis himself, his active Twitter account is both informative in substance and insightful in character.
Below is the second of two parts of an edited transcript of a discussion that he was kind enough to have with me in late January. The first part, in which he talks about his educational background, how it helped shape his worldview, and HistPhil, is here.
Hartmann: Why should we care about history and philanthropy, and the history of philanthropy? How should history inform philanthropy? If I’m a progressive-foundation program officer and want to “make the world anew,” what are you talking to me about the ’20s and ’30s for?
Soskis: Well, first I’d say, Why do you want to “make the world anew”? I’d probably ask you to dig a little deeper there.
When asked to defend the study of history for the practice of philanthropy, it actually is an interesting question precisely because of what history brings. There’s a way to study history, the case-study method, which is all about extracting bullet points that could be applied instrumentally in a very clear line to practice. Look back at this famous philanthropic initiative, and tell me what are the three lessons that can inform the same kind of work you’re doing today.
There’s some benefit to that, and you could apply the same technique to the study of philanthropy itself. Give me in three bullet points, what does the study of history happen to actually inform practice? I do some of that work, and I think it has its place.
But my main answer actually makes answering that specific question a little more difficult. History, for me, is all about these three C’s—context, contingency, and complexity. It is a deeply humanistic enterprise that shapes the way you think about the world, about change, about human interaction. It makes you a more complete thinker, but in ways that almost by definition don’t lend themselves to the sort of easy bullet-point answer.
I could point to, if you study this historical program, that would probably improve your practice in this parallel program in the 21stCentury. I think that’s true, but my answer goes deeper and it’s really about being a more complete, full thinker about the way that human activity has operated and the context in which it operates. That can improve the practice of philanthropy, just like it improves almost every kind of pursuit.
Hartmann: How about an example where knowledge of history and its context and complexity would help current philanthropy?
Soskis: I’ll give you a few, and I’ll talk about some of the work I’ve done, and then just give a few others.
Right now and over the last couple of years, I’ve been working with the Open Philanthropy project. This is an offshoot of GiveWell. It’s developing historical case studies, but really rich, complex case studies of historical initiatives. It advises Good Ventures, which is Dustin Moskovitz’s and Cari Tuna’s foundation.
For somebody who doesn’t come from a background of institutional philanthropy and is trying to get a grounding on what’s worked and what hasn’t worked in the past, I’ve done a series of case studies on trying to look really carefully at how policy change actually happens.
I did a big, big case study, for instance, on the Affordable Care Act. I think it gives an appreciation of how messy the process and how complex the process is. One thing that came out of that is there’s a lot of emphasis on Atlantic Philanthropies’ major investment in the home stretch. That could be a model for how foundations think about it. Where’s the next home stretch?
But what emerged in the research was that a whole series of foundations actually had paved the way, so that when the window opened, a big foundation could actually jump in. There was another model that had been, I think, obscured a little bit—which is the kind of patient funding of infrastructure and research organizations and grassroots mobilization—that was sort of waiting for that moment.
Hartmann: There might be analogues in other areas, as a former Bradley Foundation person like me would note, including the Federalist Society and in the school-choice context.
Soskis: Yes, those are good examples.
Others could include the Ford Foundation, which was looking to set up a public-interest technology program. The idea is if you want to go and study technology but direct your efforts to the public sector, there’s not really a good infrastructure for training students how to do that. They looked back to their history creating public-interest law as a program area. Ford basically built that up. They created clinics and fellowships and funded that kind of thing. That was a direct model that I think was helpful.
Looking back at almost any big success story, I associate the study of history with what you could call philanthropic modesty, basically. This is not something I necessarily feel like I have a huge reserve of …
Hartmann: We’re all very proud of our modesty.
Soskis: Yes. I’m speaking of this aspirationally. But you realize that almost any success story is complicated, and you have to be really, really careful of falling into kind of a celebratory mode of thinking.
I look at something like the Green Revolution that is almost always promoted as the greatest success story of 20th Century philanthropy, but historians, geologists, anthropologists, and sociologists have poked holes in that narrative. They’ve linked the funding of this agricultural revolution and the promotion of monoculture to all sorts of problems—the swelling of cities, the decline of small towns. Taking a chance to look back and discipline the kind of hubris that normally attends to these kind of big, big grants can be really constructive.
But it’s hard, so you need some examples to be able to say, This is why you actually have to restrain yourself and be careful of hubris.
Hartmann: Is hubris a bigger problem than it used to be in philanthropy?
Soskis: There’s more money …
Hartmann: So, yes?
Soskis: I would say that there’s more money, and the donors are younger. I think you can be hubristic as a program officer, but probably the most powerful form of hubris is entrepreneurial. I would definitely not say that there was no hubris half a century ago—
Hartmann: Human nature is the same.
Soskis: I would not say human nature was not a problem, but these days, the combination of huge amounts of money created by entrepreneurs who think that they basically are equipped to address big problems is a perfect recipe for hubris.
What’s interesting to me, though, is this is not uniformly the case. I wish there was even more, but there’s definitely been an interest in history from some of those types of people. I think it’s precisely because they’re not part of the traditional philanthropy establishment, the idea that the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have access to this deep institutional memory that guides them. In a sense, they don’t need history brought to them. They take in their history every day.
But some of these other folks who don’t have a history, I think that they’ve been just as interested in learning about it. It goes against the grain a bit, if you think of some of these entrepreneurs as being completely heedless and just …
Soskis: Yes. And, actually, at least some of them have been much more willing to think critically and to take history into account.
Hartmann: What would be some examples of that? Whom are you complimenting?
Soskis: Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, certainly. They’ve been very thoughtful and appreciative of History. John Arnold is somebody whom I really respect. He certainly thinks about what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. Though he’s not immune to hubris, of course.
Conservatism and philanthropic history
Hartmann: Donor intent is part of history. Is it paid enough attention to? This would be a conservative critique, I suppose, of much of philanthropy.
Soskis: So donor intent has a history itself. I’m interested in the history of donor intent. I’ve done a lot of writing about “giving while living” and the debates about perpetuity and limited-life foundations. To the extent that donor intent is a part of the story of philanthropy, it certainly should be a part of this conversation.
Should contemporary philanthropists care about donor internet as a major issue? That’s not what keeps me up at night. Clear abrogations of donor intent are problematic, but something like the Ford Foundation—where you have a very loose charter and a family that’s clearly transforming and changing and whose politics is fluid—is not really that.
When the Rockefeller Foundation and some of the early foundations created the template of the general-purpose grantmaking foundation, they were directly responding to an excessive regard for donor intent. In a way, it’s not to reject donor intent as something that people should take seriously, but I think you can’t deny that a big part of the growth of philanthropy in the United States was actually premised on not thinking donor intent was the most important value. There was a big tradition of critiquing donor intent and the “dead hand.”
The willingness to challenge donor intent—not to deny it once it’s been established, but to create expansive, general-purpose foundations—is probably one of the biggest innovations that you can you can attach to the American philanthropic tradition.
Hartmann: To the degree there’s conservative study of philanthropic history, a lot of which is about donor intent, what do they understudy?
Soskis: That’s a very good question. One of the questions at the Bradley Center that I remember Bill [Schambra] pushing on, and there were several really fascinating events, was this idea of whether or not there is a conservative tradition of philanthropy. There’s clearly conservative philanthropy. We all know it. Bradley is a big part of it.
But is there a distinct tradition that constitutes a conservative approach to philanthropy that is different from either a progressive approach or an establishment approach? One thing that’s gotten away a bit from conservatives, in a sense—and you’ll hear echoes of Bill here—but the headlong pursuit of policy victories has sapped and undermined this question of, is there a deeper commitment to how to understand social change.
The importance of civil society, the importance of the local, the importance of grassroots participation, and a kind of suspicion of bureaucracy—those things have a real legitimacy in the American tradition. I don’t agree with the policy aims of much of conservative philanthropy. That’s not where I find the value. But if there is a conservative tradition, those notions to me would be meaningful. I could find some value there. I don’t know who the voices these days are who are really fleshing that out to a general audience, to an audience that isn’t just peers and like-minded individuals.
There was a period in the middle of the Obama years and the beginning of the Trump years in which civil society seemed like it fell off the map. You had [Sen.] Mike Lee doing some work. You had some people thinking about it, but that wasn’t one of the main issues that conservatives were really energized about.
Hartmann: That’s not the case anymore? Is that changing?
Soskis: I think there’s a space now for re-engaging with those issues. Maybe it can integrate into or differentiate from a Trumpian conservatism, I don’t know. That’s not a place that he’s really been interested in.
I don’t think they’ll be policy overlap, but that is a place where I really do think there’s a potential for progressives and conservatives to do some constructive sharing and engagement. This is a small sample size, I’ll say that, but the way that I’ve learned from Bill is that, writ large, there’s a model for constrictive engagement there.
Current critiques of philanthropy from progressives
Hartmann: What about the debates going on, if that’s what they are, within liberal and progressive philanthropy? There seems to be some “trouble in the forest,” some upset. The critiques are harsh. I guess I’m thinking of Anand Giridharadas and his Winners Take All book and Rob Reich’s Just Giving. Are they too harsh? Are they historically informed?
Soskis: Anand’s book could have benefited from having more history, I suppose, but that wasn’t his purpose. Anand’s book is a very powerful critique. It’s a polemic, and I think it’s meant to be. It’s meant to stir people and to make people think. I think it’s indisputably done that.
I think the points at which I have problems are points at which it’s not connected to a positive vision of what philanthropy can be and should be. If you look at some of his more recent writing, he’s starting to flesh that out more.
Part of this is also the ways in which social media encourages the most polemical types of writing and doesn’t leave a lot of space for the “next steps.”
If you look at Rob’s book, its function is in part to legitimate philanthropy. It has this critique, but then much of it is basically engaged with, well, what can philanthropy legitimately do in a democracy? He has enormous grounds for what philanthropy can do. It can take on risks. It can take time frames that markets or governments don’t want to take on. It promote pluralism in a way that markets and governments really don’t. There’s a lot of work philanthropy can do there.
This idea that there’s a “philanthropy war,” that to me is again more about the way the public discourse is now degraded by social media and I’m as guilty as anybody else.
If you read Anand’s book and you read Rob’s book and you got some very thoughtful conservatives or defenders of philanthropy in a room, they wouldn’t agree on lots of stuff—they wouldn’t agree, for instance, on the legitimacy of concentrated wealth—but they probably would agree on some ways in which philanthropy can be exercised in a legitimate and democratically accountable way.
I think of myself as a critic of philanthropy, but I when I think of that term, I don’t think of that term to mean that I don’t think philanthropy is legitimate. I think of it as somebody who stands aside and thinks critically about philanthropy, but I do so because I think that philanthropy is an important tradition in American life.
Hartmann: So you’re kind of in Phil Buchanan’s category there?
Soskis: Yes. I’m probably a little more to the left of Phil, but …. When I criticize philanthropy, I think it’s important to do so from a position in which I also value philanthropy and think it’s an important institution. There are some folks who really see philanthropy as a complete function of a plutocracy. I’m not entirely in that camp.
You can have Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax and still have an incredibly vibrant thriving philanthropic sector. Some of this is just people assuming that these things are all at odds. There’s a lot of wealth out there and a lot of it is not being used philanthropically, so it’s not as if you can assume taxing wealth would necessarily lead to philanthropy shriveling up.
There’s plenty of ground to have a thriving civil society and a thriving public sector. The challenge for people like me is to push people to get to that point. What does that point look like?
Differences, discipline, and dialogue
Soskis: It’s probably my favorite thing I’ve studied. I wrote a chapter on Catholic critiques of Protestant philanthropy. In writing that chapter, I learned the Catholics were some of the most vociferous critics. You think things are bad now. They were really, really hard on philanthropy.
What was really interesting is it was part of a fully formed counter-ethic that they also celebrated. It was small-scale, it was addressed to immediate suffering, it was based on an engagement with the sufferer in some very deep and personal way, it was suspicious of endowments. That really informed my broader thinking that the critiques of philanthropy were subsumed into a larger project of giving, too. The critiques were connected to a proactive approach to how to give.
I saw Catholic charity and modern philanthropy as really being in constant tension and dialogue. My argument in that chapter is that the best result is when they each critique the other. Catholic charity certainly had its own drawbacks and failings, but they each formed a critique that disciplined the other.
Somehow, Bill [Schambra] read the chapter and liked it, so I fleshed it out and wrote a larger piece for the Bradley Center going back and thinking about that tension. When did charity and philanthropy really begin to become oppositional? Modern philanthropy as we understand it was literally born on opposing charity. That was the way it defined itself and understood itself. Philanthropy gets at root causes, philanthropy is not parochial, philanthropy is not concerned with immediate suffering, all that kind of stuff.
What I tried to do is bring it into the present day. Still now, same as in the late 19th Century, I think society is better if there’s a vibrant ethic of charity that can discipline philanthropy. Philanthropy now, like then, is connected to the market. It’s connected to bureaucracy. It’s the dominant mode of social good and it needs something to challenge and discipline it.
One thing I try to do is when I see the kind of reflexive rejection of charity that often accompanies philanthropic ambition, I try to check that and say, That’s fine, but charity itself has a valid legitimate purpose and can really help philanthropy in terms of recognizing and its own limits and its own shortcomings.
Hartmann: You may be the mayor of the philanthropic Twittersphere.
Soskis: Well, I’ll take deputy commissioner, or some functionary role. I have to say, Twitter has done terrible things to all sorts of people, but it’s a lifeline for me. Again, we don’t have a lot of communities for philanthropic scholarship. I’ve met really interesting people all over the country with whom I feel like I have a real intellectual affinity, and I rely on it. I really do rely on it for some really deep engagement and discussion.
I really appreciate the other folks out there thinking about these issues.
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